When it was first revealed that Neil Gaiman was writing an episode of “Doctor Who,” I know I wasn’t alone in thinking it was a perfect match. One of my favorite authors writing an episode of my all-time favorite television series? Yes, please!
Fortunately, the Gaiman-penned episode “The Doctor’s Wife” managed to be even better than everyone hoped when it premiered earlier this year, and earned rave reviews from newcomers and longtime fans alike. So, when the author dropped by MTV News HQ to discuss the 10th anniversary of his award-winning novel “American Gods,” I made sure to ask him about the experience of taking on 47 years of “Doctor Who” history and taking fans on a journey deep inside the TARDIS.
“Approximately three and a half years ago, I had dinner with Steven Moffat in a very nice Chinese restaurant in London. Red wine was drunk [and] I was saying things like, ’Hypothetically speaking, should anybody ask me to write an episode of ’Doctor Who,’ I would really quite like to,'” said Gaiman of the episode’s origins.
“Halfway through, [Steven] said, ’Let’s stop beating around the bush. I’m going to be taking over ’Doctor Who’ when Russell [T. Davies] leaves,'” he continued. “’You want to write an episode. I would love you to write an episode. If you come up with an idea, give me a call.'”
According to Gaiman, he came up with quite a few ideas — “some of them quite good” — but his train of thought kept coming back to the Doctor’s time- and space-traveling police box, the TARDIS.
“You always want to go further into the TARDIS,” he explained. “I’ve been fascinated by that since I was a kid . . . and I thought, ’Wouldn’t it be fun to do a story that’s like ’The Most Dangerous Game,’ where people are hunting the Doctor through the TARDIS?’ And I thought that didn’t really work that well, because the Doctor knows the TARDIS really well. He will always win if you’re hunting him through the TARDIS, because he can go, ’A-ha! You didn’t know that this door takes you to…'”
“And then I thought, why don’t I turn that upside down?” he continued. “Wouldn’t it be more fun if I had companions being hunted through the TARDIS or bad stuff happening to them and they were having to go deep into the TARDIS? . . . What if I make the most safe and glorious place in the world dangerous?”
From there, his thoughts led to the potential outcome of a malevolent force taking control of the TARDIS — and beyond that, what would happen to the original “soul” of the TARDIS if it were suddenly replaced? And that, he said, is when he knew had the makings of a story.
And according to Gaiman, the series’ showrunner agreed.
“I phoned Steven Moffat and I said, ’This is the plot,’ and he said, ’Yes, do that,'” remembered Gaiman.
Once he had the idea — and Moffat’s approval — the task of actually writing the episode began. For Gaiman, it was a very different experience than his last television episode.
“When I wrote my episode of ’Babylon 5,’ I wrote it and handed it in, and Joe Straczynski had three notes,” he said. “I took it back, did those three rewrites, and then Joe noodled slightly with the final scene himself, and that was it. With ’Doctor Who,’ it was a much stranger and longer process.”
Gaiman’s episode was originally slated to premiere last season, but was pushed back into the current season.
“It was meant to be Episode 11 [of last season],” he explained. “We were heading towards that, and then they ran out of money and said, ’Look, we need a cheaper episode, so we’re going to put ’The Lodger’ in there and bounce you to the next season.'”
“That meant I now had to take this episode that was just the Doctor and Amy and now I had to make it the Doctor and Amy and Rory,” he said of the revisions necessary to fit the episode into this season’s continuity. “There was one point where we really had a script that everybody was happy with, except that it was 75 pages long for a 42-minute episode — so I had to lose 30 pages. Every scene, every piece of dialogue, everything got so compressed by the end.”
Asked what he learned from the experience, Gaiman said the biggest lesson he took from writing “Doctor Who” was the benefit of not making viewers dig too far into dialogue.
“I did a really elegant thing where the TARDIS and the Doctor are having the conversation about who stole who, and it was very oblique, and you were supposed to start thinking, ’Oh my god, she actually believes she stole him,'” he explained. “Steven just went in and changed the conversation to just be: ’You stole me and I stole you.'”
“I thought, ’Well, that was a bit on the nail. I wonder how it will work?’ And when it was broadcast, that was one of people’s favorite lines,” he laughed.
Given the success of his first “Doctor Who” episode, the question inevitably becomes: when will he write his next one?
“What I really need is more bodies,” he laughed. “I have this issue with only having one body, ten fingers, and 24 hours in a day. I don’t know.”
“I loved writing my episode of ’Doctor Who,’ and I would love to do another one,” he continued. “The scary thing, of course, is when you write something that is so absolutely hugely well-beloved straight out of the gate, the immediate impulse is to go, ’Okay, as soon as I come up with an idea that’s better than that one, I’ll write ’Doctor Who’ again.'”
Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods: The 10th Anniversary Edition” is on shelves now. You can find out more about his work at www.neilgaiman.com.